2017 Record: 12-2 (8-1, ACC Champs)
2017 Review: The first year of the post-Deshaun Watson era was probably as inconsistent as many imagined it would be. Clemson looked like their normal selves at times, but the lack of a consistent passing game hurt the Tigers in most games against decent defenses. The running game could not always carry the load and in both of Clemson’s losses, the lack of a downfield passing game killed them.
Scheme: Clemson’s offensive scheme is quite simple, but can be difficult to stop. Co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott (son of former FSU assistant Brad Scott, architect of the Fast Break offense) use spread formations and tempo and operate almost exclusively out of one-back formations. Clemson’s goal is to be able to line up in multiple formations, but out of the same personnel package (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB). So, at times, you’ll see a RB lined up as a WR in an empty set or a TE lined up as an H-back or fullback to create a two-back look. The goal, though, is to remain in the same personnel package and to go fast to not allow the defense to substitute.
Quarterbacks: There probably wasn’t much senior Kelly Bryant could do to satisfy Clemson fans, given he was replacing a generational talent in Watson. For the most part, Bryant (2802 yards, 66%, 13 TDs, 8 INTs, 665 yds rushing, 11 TDs) was efficient, poised, and steady, but in several games his lack of downfield passing allowed teams to load the box and dare Bryant to beat them. On many occasions, he just could not do it. Bryant is never going to be an elite passer, but he has the tools to be a good college QB.
The problem for Bryant is that Clemson just signed another potential generational talent at QB in true freshman Trevor Lawrence, an early enrollee who exited spring as the backup. Bryant is still the starter for now, but Lawrence has all the tools and is a much better, and natural, passer than Bryant. Many people figure Lawrence will ease into the job much like Watson did in his true freshman season, eventually overtaking Cole Stoudt about four games into the season. And if Bryant manages to hold Lawrence off, that probably means good things for Clemson.
Running Backs: If it wasn’t for the insane amount of talent FSU and Alabama have stockpiled at running back, Clemson would have a decent argument for having the top RB corps in the country. The top three rushers from last year return and the group adds a 4* recruit to the mix for good measure.
Sophomore Travis Etienne is not the highest rated of the quartet, but he might have the highest ceiling. Etienne (766 yds, 7.2 avg, 13 TDs) was boom or bust for most of his freshman campaign, but he really blossomed toward the end of the year. Given his combo of size (5-10, 200), speed, and vision, he has home run potential on every touch. Junior Tavien Feaster (669 yds, 6.3 avg, 7 TDs, 12 receptions, TD) was considered by many to be the top runner in his recruiting class and he showed potential last year, getting exactly the same amount of carries as Etienne. Feaster does not have the home run ability of Etienne, but he does provide a steady presence that will always fall forward and he’s a decent receiver. Senior Adam Choice (326 yds, 4.9 avg, 6 TDs) is the old hat of the group, a graduate student who excels as a short yardage runner. True freshman Lyn-J Dixon probably can’t break into the mix this year, but the 4* recruit is dynamic and has a bright future.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Despite losing guys like Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett, the 2017 receiving unit was still one of the best in the country. Now, the Tigers must replace Deon Cain and Ray Ray McCloud, who finished among the top three on the team in receptions, yards, and touchdown catches. This unit is still deep on talent, but lacks the experience of the past few years.
The exception to the rule about experience is senior Hunter Renfrow, beginning what seems like his eleventh year on campus. A former minor league baseball player, Renfrow (60 recs, 602 yds, 3 TDs) is the quintessential possession receiver. Bill Belichick is surely waiting in anticipation to draft him. From there are several super sophomores with loads of potential. Tee Higgins (17 recs, 345 yds, 2 TDs) was widely considered the best WR of his class and he had huge outings late in the year against The Citadel and South Carolina. He’s the most likely big play threat of the group. Amari Rodgers (19 recs, 123 yds) caught a lot of screen passes last year and is a dangerous slot receiver, although he needs to prove it a bit more. T.J. Chase was another top recruit, but he played less than Higgins and Rodgers. Still, Chase oozes potential due to his size and speed.
Clemson has a myriad of options from there, but most are either upperclassmen who’ve never done much or underclassmen who haven’t played. Senior Trevion Thompson (11 recs, 94 yds) and juniors Diondre Overton (14 recs, 178 yds) and Cornell Powell (8 recs, TD) fall in the former category. There are somewhat high hopes for Overton and all are currently listed as backups, but that could change if true freshmen Derion Kendrick and Justyn Ross pan out. Kendrick was a 5* recruit who was the top rated athlete in the country while Ross was a 4* recruit who was considered a top 50 player nationally and the best player in the state of Alabama.
At tight end, Clemson really missed Leggett last year and probably will again. They have bodies here, but no real standout. Senior Milan Richard (18 recs, 210 yds, TD) and junior Garrett Williams will likely split the job, with Richard the better receiver and Williams the better blocker. Senior Cannon Smith was the highest rated recruit of the group, but he has never panned out. Sophomore J.C. Chalk is probably the future of the position and may see more playing time this year.
Offensive Line: You could make a pretty solid argument that Clemson’s offensive line was actually better last year than in the 2016 championship season and expectations for this unit are high with four starters back and several guys with recruiting accolades battling for the one open job.
Senior LT Mitch Hyatt is the star of the group, having started since his freshman year. Hyatt was an All-American and could have easily made the jump to the NFL. Senior C Justin Falcinelli was a first-time starter last year, but ended the season as 1st team All-ACC and should be great again. Juniors Sean Pollard and Tremayne Anchrum have switched spots, with Pollard moving inside to RG and Anchrum moving outside to RT. Pollard has 16 career starts and excels at run blocking while Anchrum makes up for a lack of ideal measurables (he’s just 6-2) with sound technique and footwork.
The new starter, at LG, will likely be junior John Simpson, with redshirt freshman Matt Bockhorst nipping at his heels. Both are former 4* recruits who have good size and strength. True freshman Jackson Carman, considered by many the top OL recruit last year, has an outside shot at the LG job and is also listed as Hyatt’s backup at LT. Depth is pretty enviable, as Clemson has six other guys, besides Bockhorst and Carman, who were 4* recruits coming out of high school on the roster.
2017 Review: Another year, another elite defense. Clemson ranked in the top 5 in nearly all major defensive statistical categories and were one of the top units using analytics too. No matter how you slice it, Clemson was elite on defense. One out of every five plays the opponent ran ended in lost yardage. Five opponents were held to 7 points or less and another 5 were held to 17 or less. It has gotten to the point where you just expect the Tigers to be fantastic on defense year in, year out.
Scheme: On paper, Clemson runs a very simple defense schematically. Much like FSU’s Harlon Barnett, Clemson DC Brent Venables runs an attacking 4-3 where one of the LBs is actually a LB/safety hybrid. Venables’ units are fast, nasty, and aggressive. Play fast. Play physical. That is a defensive coaching cliché every coach in America uses, but Clemson backs it up. The defensive line and linebackers all attack gaps and get upfield while Venables typically puts his corners on an island. He’s going to sell out to stop the run and then bring exotic blitzes on obvious passing downs. The formula works nearly every week.
Defensive Line: If you’ve read this far, you probably already know Clemson has top notch talent. The talent they’ve stockpiled here is ridiculous, though, even by their standards. And the fact coach Dabo Swinney got three sure-fire 1st round draft picks to return to school means Clemson has the best family atmosphere in America or they are “fully committed” to winning. Or both.
Where to begin? The defensive tackle trio of senior Christian Wilkins, junior Dexter Lawrence, and senior Albert Huggins is probably the best in the country. Wilkins (53 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks) saw his stats drop a bit when he moved back to tackle, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Wilkins is big, strong, fast, and blows up offensive plays routinely. Lawrence (39 tackles, 3 for loss, 2.5 sacks) is a freak of nature who goes 6-4, 340, but is super quick. He had a bit of a sophomore slump, but I’d expect him to turn it on in his money year. Huggins (21 tackles, 5 for loss, 1.5 sacks) is a former elite recruit who has been stuck behind the first two guys mentioned. He’d be a starter at most schools and actually exited spring listed above Lawrence on the depth chart. Sophomore Nyles Pinckney (18 tackles, 2 for loss) got his feet wet last year and the coaches have high hopes for him. Redshirt freshman Jordan Williams was a top recruit who might see some time.
The depth at defensive end is even better, although you could argue which spot has more star power. Redshirt junior Clelin Ferrell and senior Austin Bryant could have easily entered the NFL Draft, but both stayed and form what is surely the best defensive end duo in the country. Ferrell (63 tackles, 18 for loss, 9.5 sacks) is an elite pass rusher with the size to stuff the run too. Bryant (58 tackles, 15.5 for loss, 8.5 sacks) is no slouch as a pass rusher himself and is slightly bigger than Ferrell. The Tigers legitimately have seven backups who could play here. Senior Chris Register is a grad student who is more about effort than talent. Sophomore Xavier Kelly was a top recruit who saw time in blowouts. He has a super high ceiling. Classmate Justin Foster is similar to Kelly, although slightly smaller. Senior Richard Yeargin has a lot of experience, although he’s fallen down the depth chart recently. Redshirt frosh Logan Rudolph is a threat as a situational pass rusher. True freshmen Xavier Thomas and KJ Henry were 5* recruits and considered top 25 players nationally while Justin Mascoll was a high 4*.
Linebackers: Leading tackler Dorian O’Daniel graduated, but eight players who appeared in at least 10 games return here so this unit should be stacked.
Senior Kendall Joseph and junior Tre Lamar are the returning starters, although they are both competing for the same job due to the emergence of other players in this unit. Joseph (87 tackles, 5 for loss, INT) started at WLB last year, but he moved inside to battle Lamar for the MLB job in the spring and they are competing again now. Joseph has more natural playmaking ability and adds speed to the field. Lamar (52 tackles, 5 for loss, 4 sacks) excelled as a blitzer and has prototypical size, but was inefficient and tended to disappear from games at times.
At the outside spots, senior JD Davis and sophomore Isaiah Simmons are expected to start. Davis (55 tackles, 4.5 for loss) was a nothing recruit, and a legacy to boot, but he has exceeded all expectations and is slated to start at Joseph’s old WLB spot. Davis is no superstar, but he does his job and rarely makes mistakes. Simmons (49 tackles, 3 for loss, 5 pass breakups) will man the hybrid LB/S spot and he has the size and quickness to excel in the position.
Depth here is quite good, with junior James Skalski (37 tackles, 2 for loss), senior Jalen Williams (18 tackles, 2 for loss, 3 PBUs), junior Chad Smith (20 tackles, 3 for loss), senior Judah Davis (13 tackles, 1.5 for loss), and sophomore Shaq Smith (14 tackles) all experienced, proven players. Shaq Smith was a top recruit who has a bright future. Add in Mike Jones, Jr., a blue chip true freshman, just for good measure.
Secondary: Clemson’s defense was certainly elite last year, but if any unit struggled, it was this one. Due to injuries and some inconsistencies, the secondary had some rough patches. That being said, the play overall was quite good, yet this unit needs to be rebuilt after losing three main contributors.
The most top shelf talent in the secondary might be at corner, although depth is an issue. Clemson has three experienced, talented corners in senior Mark Fields, junior Trayvon Mullen, and sophomore AJ Terrell. Fields (20 tackles, 3 for loss, 2 PBUs) was limited to eight games due to injury, but he has the most experience of any defensive back on the roster. He is undersized (he’s generously listed at 5-11, but he looks like he’s 5-9 at best) and struggles with consistency and that may relegate him to a backup role. Mullen (42 tackles, 3 INTs, 7 PBUs) was a top recruit who struggled to acclimate to the college game as a freshman. However, last year, he had a breakout season as a sophomore, utilizing his length (6-2, 190), speed, and athleticism to become a shutdown guy. It would be shocking if he isn’t in an NFL camp next year. The hopes are just as high for Terrell (15 tackles, 6 PBUs, INT), yet another blue chip recruit who appeared in all 14 games last year off the bench. He’s pushing Fields for one starting spot and has a good chance of winning it. Depth is an issue here as this trio are all the corners on the roster who have played and redshirt frosh LeAnthony Williams was listed as a backup at both spots. That being said, Venables and Swinney have both stated that true freshmen Kyler McMichael and Mario Goodrich are good enough to play right away.
At safety, the Tigers return two solid starters in juniors Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace, but depth is an issue here too. Muse (64 tackles, 2 for loss, 4 PBUs) is the thumper of the two and at 6-2, 225 has the ability to come up and help against the run. Wallace (36 tackles, INT, 4 PBUs) started six games last year and will take over one safety spot from the departed Van Smith. Wallace has the athleticism and work ethic to be good, although he isn’t an elite talent and could be exposed in coverage. Depth here is very untested. The aforementioned Isaiah Simmons would likely move from his LB/S hybrid spot to take over for Muse if he got hurt. Junior Denzel Johnson and sophomore Nolan Turner (14 tackles) are currently listed as the backups, but they have mainly played special teams and both were lower rated recruits coming out of high school who were viewed as projects. After that is nothing but walk-ons.
Special Teams: It is good for Clemson that they were rarely involved in close games because their special teams were awful lost year. Senior kicker Greg Huegel tore his ACL early in the year, although he was only 2 of 4 on field goals when the injury happened. Alex Spence came in and made just 9 of 14 attempts. Huegel is back and the coaching staff surely hopes he gets back to his 2016 form, when he was one of the top kickers in the nation. Sophomore punter Will Spiers (40.6 avg) was not awful, but he was up and down and needs to become steadier. Ray Ray McCloud was a fantastic punt returner and someone will have to take that job over.
Schedule: The reality is that Clemson will be a favorite in every game they play, but there are a few tough road games that could give the Tigers trouble. An early season matchup at Texas A&M could be rough, especially if the offense falters. The Tigers also have conference road games at GA Tech, FSU, and Boston College that could be dicey. The hardest home games are likely tilts with NC State, Louisville, and rival South Carolina.
Overall: Pretty much every preseason poll has Clemson at #2 and you can see why. They return 74% of their overall team production, have eight starters back on defense, what looks to be a solid offensive line, oodles of skill position talent, and a steady QB with a potential elite QB nipping at his heels. Yet, Clemson knows as well as anyone that upsets happen after losing to Pitt in 2016 and Syracuse last year. And having several near misses in those seasons to boot. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ system has Clemson as a double digit favorite in every game they play and their lowest win probabilities are 75% against A&M and 73% at FSU. Regardless of how elite the defense likely will be, there are two questions that nag at me as I look at Clemson. First, while it was great Clemson got all those defensive linemen to return to school, will they play with reckless abandon or will they save themselves for the NFL? As FSU fans, we know how talented that 2014 defense was, but so many of those guys were saving themselves for the NFL that the overall product was not as good as the sum of its parts. Venables is a much better DC than Charles Kelly, but will those sure-fire millionaires give full effort? Second, and perhaps more importantly, can Clemson develop a downfield passing threat? If not, a few teams on their schedule have good enough front sevens to make Clemson slowly and methodically drive the field, which often does not happen in college football. Many teams make mistakes before they can close out a 12-play drive. Clemson will be good enough to beat almost everyone on their schedule without a deep threat, but they won’t go undefeated if they can’t develop the passing attack. This team is not perfect, as they have questions in the secondary and at tight end, they lack proven depth at WR, and there is the QB question that will loom until an outright decision is made. That being said, it would be foolish to pick anyone else to win the ACC. I just can’t shake the feeling, though, that Clemson is likely to drop at least one game, and maybe two, due to some of their questions.